The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case involving “agency fees” that unions impose on workers who aren’t members to cover union activities with the exception of political action. Since the oral arguments took place, most news outlets, court watchers and even most union leaders have predicted that the court will side with Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois who is required by state law to pay the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees a monthly fee.
As a teacher who was a plaintiff in a similar case two years ago, I hope the predictions on the court’s decision are correct. Although Janus is not a teacher, his case mirrors Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in its purpose: No government worker should be forced to fund a union as a condition of employment, and no worker should be forced to pay for political speech with which he disagrees.
A public-sector union that engages in collective bargaining is 100 percent political because it advocates for how taxpayer money should be spent. If the union scores a raise for teachers, that means fewer dollars for library books, arts education or school supplies. Money for education is not endless, and the effects of union policy positions negotiated during collective bargaining trickle down to our students. I just got a raise in my school district, but I have to bring my own box of tissues for my classroom. Good thing I got the raise; I can afford three-ply now.
Despite claims to the contrary, unions know that their positions are 100 percent political — both in the candidates and issues they support and in the positions they take during collective bargaining. If they weren’t political, Alma Hernandez, executive director of the Service Employees International Union in California would not characterize the Janus case this way: “The threat to organized labor is a threat to all of us, in particular to the Democratic Party.”
The real “threat” of a Janus win is that teachers and workers would be able to make a choice about whether to join — and fund — a union. Unions are terrified by this and are pursuing a variety of legislation in states including Washington (SB6229 and SB6079), California and New York that would make it mandatory for workers to hear a membership sales pitch from unions but nearly impossible for groups with different perspectives to present differing viewpoints. There’s even a proposal in Illinois to make anyone not covered by a union contract ineligible for bonuses. If you want to negotiate for yourself (something called Worker's Choice, which Illinois doesn't allow yet but may consider in a post-Janus world), you would be prohibited from receiving a bonus.
Unions continue to claim that collective bargaining isn’t political and that they are on the side of workers. But their language and actions suggest otherwise. Forcing workers to fund a group they disagree with doesn’t support workers. Depriving workers of bonuses doesn’t support workers. Suppressing other viewpoints so that workers can’t hear multiple sides of an issue doesn’t support workers.
Unions can’t be pro-worker and at the same time fight against the rights of teachers. I hope the Supreme Court agrees and that 2018 is the year our rights are finally restored. In turn, perhaps unions will set aside the political games and become kinder, gentler advocacy groups that are paid for by folks who want to do so. Those of us who choose not to donate our money to the union in a post-Janus America can do our thing, and the unions can do theirs. It’s not complicated and it’s long overdue.
Karen Cuen is a music teacher in Chino Valley, California, and was a plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, resulted in a 4-4 split on the court, leaving in place forced union dues.